When I was seven, there were two things I wanted to be: a veterinarian, and a boy. I’m not sure if I thought the latter was a viable possibility, or if I did, when it became apparent to me that it wasn’t going to happen. Logistics aside, at least that dream was human. Before I just wanted to be a dog.
In preschool, there was a day that I came dressed in exactly the same Target shirt-shorts combo outfit that one of my male classmates was wearing. I was embarrassed all day, worried that someone would notice and tease me. I think they did. It wasn’t the worst. I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I wore clothes that were distinctively for girls. All the pictures of me nonchalantly dressed in floral dresses are from when I was too young to be able to protest.
Kindergarten. My best friend/worst enemy at the time screamed when I cut my hair into a bowl that only the ‘90s could have begotten, ruining the cascade of tangles that was never allowed to freely swing behind my back anyway. My hair hasn’t even approached that length since.
My older sister brought in an old family photo for a class assignment in high school, the two of us. Her teacher told her she had a cute little brother. For all intents and purposes, it may have been true.
When I get to this point in the story, acquaintances sometimes fumble for the appropriate phrasing one uses in a politically correct society to ask someone about their sexual orientation. But it wasn’t about that. It didn’t enter into the equation. I’ll never get married, I told my parents again and again, but mostly because I wanted to move to Alaska to live alone with my dog.
My mother told me she eventually outgrew her own tomboy stage. I thought I’d be different. Promised. My grandmother wore pants to her wedding.
I thought my dad had really wanted a boy, someone to ride dirt bikes and work in the garage with. I wanted to give him the next best thing. I never could bring myself to like dirt bikes.
When my sister got her ears pierced, I did too, because that way you’d still be able to tell I was a girl, right? It was too much work to have to correct people. I wasn’t trying to take a stand. I didn’t like having to correct substitute teachers and librarians, and the misrecognition caused me pangs of stress. It was a lie, and those get you into trouble. But sometimes it was like wearing a disguise.
I didn’t feel, really, like I was trapped in the wrong body. I guess I didn’t know what that meant. If someone had told me that people actually did become boys, I don’t know what I would have thought. I just knew that boys could pee standing up, and that just seemed way better.
Does that count as cross-dressing? The line is somewhat blurry: if a little boy puts on a dress, it’s not really a question, is it? But all girls wear pants and shorts. I think I mostly wore girls’ pants. But not always.
My mom told me years later that she drew the line at me wearing boys’ underwear but she didn’t know why. Because my grandma said she should, possibly. She laughed as she told me, just a random thought as we drove down the street. What would have been the harm?
Looking back, I blame the books. I read anything I could get my hands on, children’s novels full of adventure and swashbuckling and fantasy. If the heroine was smart and tough, she pretended to be a boy, because that’s how you get shit done. You put on britches and then you were allowed to leave the house and ride your horse. To be a woman was often portrayed as an impediment to an interesting life. In a fantasy series called Song of the Lioness, a girl named Alanna makes herself into an Alan so that she can become a knight, rather than getting stuck in a convent. Most of the books I read seemed to fall along the same lines. The only female Disney character I could identify with was Mulan, who chopped off her hair to go to war for her family.
This trope, in which a female poses as a male to achieve some end, is called a Sweet Polly Oliver, from an English folk song about a girl who decides to cut her hair and join the army. Onstage, it’s sometimes called a “breeches role.”
I liked these characters because they didn’t just twirl around in their ball gowns looking for a husband – they fought battles. Perhaps it was because dressing as a boy allowed them to be exceptional. I wanted to be exceptional.
I still have trouble understanding girls whose favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet is smart and independent, but she’s trapped.
The two most famous female pirates of the 18th century, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, supposedly hid their gender from their crewmates for years. This may not be true – history is sketchy on this point, and it’s also possible that everyone knew their secret. But what is definitive is that they were pregnant at the time of their trial, and it saved them from hanging with the rest of their shipmates. Would I be grateful for my uterus if it saved my life?
I can remember being fascinated by Joan of Arc, who wore men’s clothing and led armies. Would they have burned her if she had been a man?
The female body seemed like a burden to me. To “be a lady” seemed like a prison sentence. My friends who went to cotillion had to learn to wear gloves, eat cookies politely, wait for boys to ask them to dance. The Girl Scouts seemed so much more boring than their counterpart. I found skirts oppressive. How could I climb trees and walls with all that fabric getting in my way? There was no tangible evidence in my life to lead me to believe being a girl held me back in any way, but the feeling persisted. The concept of a post-feminist world was lost on me.
I played Theseus in the sixth grade play, because all the girl characters were boring. I didn’t want to play anyone’s wife.
I still don’t, at least not as a defining role. I cringe every time I hear someone say that what they really want to be in life is a loving wife and mother. I might pretend I understand, or at least support the option, but secretly I scoff. Is it naïve to think that that is not enough? I never want to look at my life and ask Betty Friedan’s silent question: Is this all?
I can’t pinpoint the moment I stopped wanting to be a boy.
One evening at dinner, when my mother suggested I get a haircut, I tossed out the proposition that maybe I should grow out my hair. I said it was because I was tired of people telling me I was in the wrong bathroom. Which was true. I didn’t like talking to anyone, much less having to argue the finer points of my own anatomy with them. But I was also just ready to start being a girl for once in my life, or at least acknowledge that it was feasible for me to enjoy things that other girls liked. It took me a long time to say it, having spent the previous half of my life fighting against it, kicking and screaming myself into a corner. I tried to play it off as practical, rational, no big deal, and so I changed at an even slower speed than my hair, millimeter by millimeter. I would only watch romantic movies if my sister “made” me. I half-heartedly protested when my mother tried to buy me overtly feminine clothes. Every girly thing I did seemed like a stand, one that said, I am growing up now. I didn’t want anyone to notice.
Ninth grade. I bought my first makeup supplies: black eyeliner to go with my newly dyed black hair. My desire to look a little more punk was an outlet, a way of pretending I wasn’t just really curious about what I might look like with eye makeup. I knew I didn’t look as cool as I wanted to be, but it was close enough.
I was 15 and almost 6,000 miles away from my home on an exchange program in Eastern Europe when I finally bought my first skirt, one my mother didn’t have to force me to wear to holiday celebrations accessorized with a burdened grimace. Away from anyone that knew me before, it was easy. At home, I was embarrassed, though I think my mom only made a small comment about it when I returned. Sometimes I think it made her proud, like I was no longer her little boy but becoming a woman, sort of like when I got to middle school and learned about personal hygiene.
I never learned how to properly act like a girl, because I wanted the opposite. By the time I had to learn to think about how to sit properly in a skirt everyone else had been practicing for years. I’d never painted my nails before — didn’t until I was 17, clumsily. I painted half my finger then didn’t know how to fix it.
You can trace vestiges of my boy stage in the sometimes-swagger of my walk, maybe in the way I move my hands or the way I say dude. I still refuse to own anything pink, frilly or beribboned. When the city inspector came to my house, she was convinced my room belonged to a male. Fuck, man, I just like the color blue. I can’t pinpoint all the leftover tics, but I know they’re there, only now people just call it a “vibe” and it’s probably why I don’t get hit on by many men. Maybe if I could see them too, they wouldn’t be there. Or maybe I wouldn’t care enough to change.
But every time someone has to ask about my sexuality, I get a little angry. Not at them, but at the subconscious self that makes me function in this way, even when I’m not trying. I don’t want anyone to have to ask. I thought I was past that. I thought I was normal.
How heteronormative of me, to think it isn’t.
Now when I bring friends home I have to explain to them who the boy in the pictures on the wall is. Sometimes I forget. It seems so long ago, like another person. But I still own a pair of men’s sneakers, my favorite shoes. They just looked cooler.